November 2, 2016

Five years ago this afternoon, I was at a local middle school speaking about LGBT youth and their developmental process. Earlier in the day, I’d learned that a former intern, my very first intern at Youth Outlook—Brian– had died, only 24 hours after learning about the death of one of the drop-in center youth. I struggled with my decision to go do the presentation, regardless. I’d been crying on and off most of the day. My eyes were bloodshot, my concentration temporarily misplaced. I debated. Finally, I put on my big boi Executive Director pants…and I went with every intention of giving those faculty members a hell of a show.

Brene Brown tells us we grow in our vulnerable moments. Three decades ago, Gail Sheehy wrote about it in Passages–like crustaceans shedding old then forming new shells, we must go through times of vulnerability and risk our most sensitive selves if we are to grow.

Don’t you love it when the universe just messes with you?

Sigh. Fine! Okay. I’m going. Suit. Briefcase. Powerpoint. I looked the part—a consultant saying the same thing that in-house people were saying but it meant something different coming from me because I worked somewhere else. My delivery that afternoon was spot on for about 80 minutes. The end of the presentation was in sight. The attendees were talking to me. They were laughing. We were there.

That’s when it happened. In the final lap of the Powerpoint presentation, the last couple of days edged their way back in and edged my focus out. First, I lost my train of thought, and as always happens when I get distracted, I became acutely aware of the attendees’ attention and just how quiet it was in the room now that I had stopped speaking. I wanted to resume, but the only images I held in my mind were an empty chair at the drop-in center group left by a child’s death, followed quickly by a heartwarming smile and a sense of the gentle energy that Brian possessed. My throat constricted.

Oh. My. God. I could not cry here in the middle of a presentation. How unprofessional could I be? This was about to crash and burn. I tried to speak, tried to force the next sentence from a series of slides that I can almost do in my sleep these days. My voice first went high, then cracked, and I stopped.

The attendees waited. They may have been puzzled. They were certainly patient.

I couldn’t do it. Another sentence failed to launch. I could feel my panic growing, sure I was about to blow whatever reputation Youth Outlook had. I held my hand up to the person sitting closest to me and whispered, “Will you excuse me for just a moment?” She nodded.

Standing just on the other side of a divider wall, I yanked my glasses off and pressed fingertips to my eyes roughly. It probably took less than a minute to compose myself and then, feeling like an absolute failure, I stepped back into place at the front of the room. The attendees returned attention to me.

I had no idea what to do. Play it down? Ignore it completely?  I had never heard of Brene Brown at that point and Gail Sheehy couldn’t have been further from my memory. Still, I thought I should offer them a real reason.

“I’m sorry,” I said, making eye contact slowly around the room. “I wanted to come here and give you a good presentation and I thought I could pull it off. Youth Outlook has had two deaths in the last 24 hours and it caught up to me.”

I couldn’t have felt more exposed than if I’d handed over my ED suit and presented in my underroos. I didn’t wait for a response. I turned back to the slides and gave the last ten minutes my full attention. If Gail Sheehy was right, I was going to grow a new shell by the time we were finished, while hoping that the agency wouldn’t suffer any longterm setback.

Wrapping up the computer cord afterward, someone touched my arm and I looked up. It was one of the teachers who’d been sitting front row for the last 90 minutes.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. “This must have been so hard. Thank you for being with us.”

As she moved past, another teacher replaced her, with a similar message. Then another.

“Thank you.”

“Thank you for letting us know. I’m sorry.”

Lightning bolt. These folks weren’t judging me. They were empathizing. The expectation that I keep it together and not let on that anything was wrong was my own. Their reaction to the fact that two people associated with Youth Outlook had just died was to support, to understand, to hold space—even when the consultant carrying a message and a Powerpoint presentation is a crab moving around on the ocean floor without their gender neutral shell.

It was that choking moment that most of us have had nightmares about, standing in front of crowd of strangers, exposed. I had every intention of giving them a great professional that day. I don’t actually know WHAT I gave them that day, because I’m mostly aware of what they gave me. Permission. To grieve. To be honest. To be human in that sense of loss. To be connected.

Grief is hard work. Pain is exhausting. No matter, sometimes my job isn’t about being a flawless professional. Sometimes it’s much more about being a flawed human whose voice can break in the middle of a presentation. Am I a better professional if I don’t love enough to feel loss? I have come to think not. As difficult as some of the days have been, I prefer experiencing those events that make us burst out of our confining shells, defenseless and frightened beings just waiting our next shell to form. If we’re really lucky, we’re surrounded by strangers holding space in a middle school classroom who will take our hands, see our grief and pain, and thank us when it happens. Those days make us better people, better professionals, and let’s face it–better crabs.


  1. susan francis says:

    Beautiful story. Thank you Nance

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. susan francis says:

    I was so taken with your post— thanks for sharing your story…. I remember sweet Brian.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Thank you for continuing to read and share the stories with me, Susan!

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